Meet Our Barrels: The Puncheons

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If you’ve been visiting our tasting room over the past four and a half years, you’ve probably noticed that our collection of barrels has been steadily growing. Right now, we have 61 of them. Some were wine barrels in their past lives, others held some kind of spirit, and they’re all so important to our beer making process. Not EVERY beer we make is barrel aged, but at any given time, between half and two thirds of the beers on our menu spent time in oak.

We know parents aren’t supposed to play favorites, but the barrel aged beers are just a ‘lil more special to us. We spend months with these beers, tasting and talking bout their progress, taking notes on the flavors that develop, deciding which ingredients will help bring out their best characteristics. Sure, we may have some ideas about what kind of beer we’re aiming to make when it goes into barrels, but most of the time, the barrels get a pretty big say in the final result.

Different types of barrels have a different impact on the beer, so the type of barrel we’re filling is definitely something we consider when we decide what to brew. In a way, barrel-aged beers are a collaboration, the barrels themselves part of our team.

So, let’s meet one of the types of barrels in our herd: The Puncheons.

To answer your first inevitable question, “puncheon” is an old term that refers to the barrel’s size. A puncheon holds 500 liters of liquid, which makes it about twice the size of a typical wine barrel. We have six of these big beauties, all inherited from friend and winemaker Carl Sutton. Before they found their way to our brewery, they held a variety of wines. Now, they are the heart of our saison program.

Almost every saison that we’ve brewed in the past two years has spent time in the puncheons. While most barrels are used only for aging, we use two of the puncheons as fermentors. The majority of our aged beers spend their first few weeks in stainless steel tanks, until most of their sugar has been converted into alcohol by the yeast. But some of our saisons go straight from the brew kettle to these giant barrels.

For the first few puncheon-fermented brews we pitched yeast straight into the barrels, but now that we have a few generations of yeast living happily in the wood, we skip that step and let the resident yeast do the job. It’s not technically spontaneous fermentation since we inoculated the puncheons with a few selected saison and brettanomyces strains, but it is a callback to the way breweries used to handle fermentation. Remember, no one knew that yeast even existed until Louis Pasteur figured out fermentation in the 1850s, so early brewers weren’t adding yeast to their beers. It was up to whatever was already living in the wooden vessels to do the job, and the same idea lives on in our puncheons.

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Because these barrels are so massive, we don’t fill them all with the same beer. We like making smaller batches to keep things interesting, so we tend to fill two puncheons at a time. Sometimes we end up turning two puncheons of the same base beer into two different beers through the addition of yeast, bacteria, fruit, spices, and dry hopping. Case in point: Elderflower Saison and Ginger Spice. Though we brewed the same saison for both beers, we pitched lactobacillus (a bacteria that’s usually in yogurt) into the Ginger Spice puncheon and brettanomyces into the Elderflower Saison puncheon. Thanks to this seemingly small difference, the two beers developed in very different ways, with Ginger Spice souring and Elderflower Saison picking up some Belgian-style funk and earthiness.

Here are all our puncheon aged and fermented brews, past, present, and future:

  • 2017 Quadrupel - aged with orange peel and vanilla (our first and last time filling four puncheons with the same beer)

  • Puncheon Party - puncheon fermented saison with tangerine and lime peel

  • Elderflower Saison - aged with dried elderflowers, dry-hopped with Sorachi Ace

  • Ginger Spice - tart saison with ginger, tamarind, and chipotle

  • Puncheon Paradise - ”spontaneously fermented” saison with pineapple and passionfruit

  • The Norse Remembers - rye saison dry-hopped with Mandarina

And what’s currently in the puncheons:

  • Next batch of Puncheon Party (aiming for a July release)

  • “Dark Horse” (The name may change. Dark saison, likely ready in the fall.)

  • Fermento Mora 2019 vintage (ready in August)

Now, Fermento Mora doesn’t actually fit with the rest of our puncheon beers, but we were short on tank space when it came time to blend and add berries, so puncheons to the rescue! This beer will be in puncheons just long enough for the yeast to chew through the additional fruit sugar, then move on to the bottling tank. But thanks to the berries, we’ll be able to tell which puncheons held Fermento Mora for a LONG time.

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Next time you’re in the tasting room, ask your beerista for a puncheon-aged beer and raise a glass to the big barrels that made it possible.

Cheers!

Team CQ